What Dreams Are Made Of

The stuff of dreams--bizarre, fleeting and mysterious. But are they significant? Psychoanalysts and neuroscientists have been on opposite sides of the couch over that question for decades. Dreams, the analysts say, are what Freud called the "royal road to the unconscious," revealing our deepest hidden desires in symbolic imagery. Scientists, however, have long viewed dreams as mechanical, the byproduct of random brain activity--neurons that blast off automatically.

As psychoanalysts celebrate the 100th anniversary of Freud's "The Interpretation of Dreams" this week, fresh scientific research is reinvigorating the debate. Studies show that brain areas responsible for emotion and perhaps even motivation may play a role in the dreaming process. Analysts are touting the findings as vindication of Freudian thinking, which has been under harsh attack in recent years. Most scientists stop far short of boosting Freud. But, says Dr. J. Allan Hobson, a Harvard neuroscientist who has helped shape neurological research on dreaming, "Whether you see this as Freudian or not... there's no question that this is an occasion for scientific celebration."

The study of dreams, of course, goes hand in hand with the study of sleep. We spend about two hours a night in the deep but active state known as rapid eye movement, or REM. Scientists still don't know exactly why REM happens, but they do know it is the sleep state richest in dreams: awaken people from REM and they will report vivid dreams about 90 percent of the time, compared with only about 10 percent of the time during non-REM sleep. REM is controlled by the pons, part of the brain stem, which controls basic functions like breathing and heart rate. It soon became scientific dogma that dreaming must also be an automatic brain function.

Now, thanks in part to sophisticated brain imaging, scientists are discovering that there could be a more complex interplay at work. A team led by Dr. Allen Braun of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders found that areas in the brain associated with emotions and visual imagery are highly activated during REM, while those linked to logic and planning are switched off. That may be why dreams are vivid and emotionally charged, but also strange and fractured. At the same time, Mark Solms, a neuroscientist at St. Bartholomew's & Royal London School of Medicine, discovered that patients who had a working pons (the area related to basic functions) but damage to a part of the brain associated with motivation or goal-seeking lost their ability to dream. That could indicate dreams involve wishes and desires, says Solms. "We haven't proven the whole edifice of Freudian dream theory," he says, but "it seems as if Freud was on the right track."

The debate is far from over. While dreams may be meaningful on the surface, says Braun, that doesn't mean they have any deeper disguised message. And though Hobson welcomes the science, he says psychoanalysts are "trying to pump up a flat tire" by using it to buttress Freud. And what, in the end, would Herr Doktor think? Freud had himself tried to integrate neurology into his research on the mind, but abandoned the work because the science was too immature. Were he alive today, says Dr. Leon Hoffman of the American Psychoanalytic Association, he would be "very excited. It would be a fruition of his dream." And dreams, after all, are where all this stuff began.

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